Phil Chess, who co-founded the legendary label Chess Records with his brother Leonard and helped make Chicago the epicenter of the blues, died Wednesday at his home in Tucson, Arizona. He was 95.
Chess’ nephew Craig Glicken confirmed his uncle’s death to the Chicago Sun-Times, adding that the former record label executive was in good health.
Born Fiszel Czyż in Poland in 1921, Chess’ family immigrated to Chicago – and changed their last name to Chess – in 1928. (“We came from Poland in 1928. That was blues all the time,” Chess once told Vanity Fair.) After a stint in the army, in 1950, Chess joined his brother Leonard – who purchased a stake of Aristocrat Records – in the music business. Their label was eventually renamed Chess Records.
The Chess brothers’ specialty was blues and R&B – “race music” as it was called at the time – with Chess Records signing legendary artists like Willie Dixon, Muddy Waters, Howlin’ Wolf, Bo Diddley, Chuck Berry, Sonny Boy Williamson, Etta James, John Lee Hooker, Elmore James and Buddy Guy. The Chess brothers often served as producers for their artists’ recordings.
Following news of Phil Chess’ death, Guy told the Sun-Times, “Phil and Leonard Chess were cuttin’ the type of music nobody else was paying attention to – Muddy, Howlin’ Wolf, Little Walter, Sonny Boy, Jimmy Rogers, I could go on and on – and now you can take a walk down State Street today and see a portrait of Muddy that’s 10 stories tall. The Chess Brothers had a lot to do with that. They started Chess Records and made Chicago what it is today, the Blues capital of the world. I’ll always be grateful for that.”
The music that was released through Chess Records – Chuck Berry’s “Johnny B. Goode” and “Roll Over Beethoven,” Jackie Brenston and his Delta Cats’ Ike Turner-penned “Rocket 88,” Muddy Waters’ “Mannish Boy” and “Rollin’ Stone,” Bo Diddley’s “Bo Diddley” and “I’m a Man” (released on the Chess brothers’ Checker Records), Howlin’ Wolf’s “Smokestack Lightning” and countless more blues classics – became the backbone of what would eventually become rock and roll.
“The Blues had a baby, and they named it rock and roll,” Waters once said. In 1963, the Chess brothers purchased WVON, a Chicago radio station dedicated to African-Americans, to get more airplay for their label’s songs.
Chess Records’ catalog also had a crucial impact on the other side of the Atlantic. The Rolling Stones, named after that Waters track, would cover many of the Chess artists’ tracks over their career, and named their instrumental “2120 S. Michigan Avenue” after Chess Records’ Chicago headquarters; the location has since been registered as a Chicago landmark. In 1970, the Rolling Stones would launch their own label – Rolling Stone Records – with Leonard Chess’ son Marshall at the helm.
“I think that the Stones understood a certain sexual energy that was in Chess Records music and amplified that into their own music and turned it into their own music,” Marshall Chess told WGBH in 1995. “To me, that was the essence of Chess that I got from the Stones. There was something, there was a certain kind of Chess music that was sexy. ‘I’m A Man’ you know and those kind of things. And I think the Stones definitely picked up to that and built on it and made it into their own sound and took it beyond it.”
The story behind the Chess brothers’ label inspired the film Cadillac Records, with Adrien Brody playing Leonard Chess in the film. Leonard died in 1969 at the age of 52, just months after Chess Records was sold to General Recorded Tape.
In 1972, three years after Leonard Chess’ death, the label scored their first Hot 100 Number One single with Chuck Berry’s “My Ding-a-Ling.” Soon after, Phil Chess retired from the music industry.
For their contributions to the genre, the Chess brothers were inducted into the Blues Hall of Fame in 1995. Phil Chess was also the recipient of the Recording Academy’s Trustees Award in 2013.